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FBI destroyed evidence in bin Laden case

From Bill Mears
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- An FBI technician mistakenly destroyed electronic surveillance gathered on Osama bin Laden two years ago after the agency's troubled e-mail monitoring system mishandled it, according to an internal FBI memo.

The memo, released Tuesday, says a technical glitch caused FBI e-mail wiretaps gathered in March 2000 to pick up not only information about bin Laden, but also "e-mails on non-covered targets," or those not under investigation. Monitoring such e-mail is a violation of federal wiretap laws.

As a result, "the FBI technical person was apparently so upset he destroyed all the e-mail take," the memo said.

The Washington-based Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained the memo as part of its lawsuit seeking information into the FBI's Internet monitoring system known as "Carnivore."

According to the memo, the Carnivore "software was turned on and did not work correctly."

The unnamed author of the April 2000 memo notes a "pattern" indicating "an inability on the part of the FBI to manage its FISAs," referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows U.S. government agents to conduct undercover operations related to suspected terrorists.

The FBI's Denver office had been investigating bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror operation, using the Carnivore system to conduct electronic wiretaps of a suspect under an FISA warrant. All names in the memo were blacked out.

FBI spokesman John Collingwood blamed the technical problem on the Internet service provider, not the agency. "This is an uncommon instance where a surveillance tool, despite being tested and employed with the assistance of a service provider, did not collect information as intended," he said.

But the memo indicates the FBI was quickly aware of the seriousness of the mistakes.

The memo's author refers to a conversation with someone in the Justice Department's Office of Intelligence Policy and Review, which approves wiretap requests, and wrote, "To state she is unhappy with ITOS [International Terrorism Operations Section] and the UBL [Usama bin Laden] Unit would be an understatement of incredible proportions."

Critics of the Carnivore system, including some members of Congress, have expressed concerns that it could gather information about the activities of innocent people with overly broad surveillance of electronic communications, thereby violating privacy rights.

David Sobel, general counsel at EPIC, said, "These documents confirm what many of us have believed for two years -- Carnivore is a powerful but clumsy tool that endangers the privacy of innocent American citizens. We have now learned that its imprecision can also jeopardize important investigations, including those involving terrorism."

The FBI has argued that Carnivore, which has been in place for about three years and is subject to close scrutiny by federal courts, does not violate privacy because it is sophisticated enough to gather only specific types of information.


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